The best Irish stew is all up to you

  • By Sheila Flynn For The Associated Press
  • Tuesday, March 11, 2008 6:35pm
  • Life

DUBLIN, Ireland — Meat, potatoes and vegetables.

It’s the quintessential trio for the quintessential Irish dish — Irish stew. But don’t be fooled by the one-pot simplicity; this hearty stew can pack astounding depth of flavor.

The best combination of ingredients for Irish stew is hotly debated, including whether lamb or beef belongs in the pot, and which variety and ratio of other vegetables should accompany it.

Here’s what you need to know:

The meat

Though the dish often is made with beef, especially in places to which it has migrated such as the United States, Irish chefs swear by lamb as the most authentic and best-tasting choice.

Irish stew evolved as home cooks threw together readily available ingredients for family meals and special occasions, and grass-fed lamb often was the easiest and cheapest option.

“Everything was thrown into the pot,” said Darina Allen, director of Ballymaloe Cookery School in County Cork, explaining stew’s humble origins. “It would have been what you had around you.”

Allen prefers lamb meat on the bone, saying it significantly amplifies the flavor of the stew. Some chefs even add additional bones during simmering.

Thick-cut shoulder chops are the preferred cut, ideally from a young lamb.

“It’d be the tenderest cut for cooking, for boiling in Irish stew, and the best value,” said Mark Downey, whose family owns John Downey &Son, an award-winning organic foods and butcher shop in Dublin.

He says the meat should be pale pink, indicating a good-quality young lamb.

If thick-cut shoulder chops aren’t available, Downey said it’s best to ask the butcher for the best, most tender bone-in cut available. But any tender cuts would work.

The method

For the best flavor, the meat should be browned in lamb fat before stewing, which Allen said imparts more flavor than cooking oil. The easiest way to get this fat is to trim it from the meat and render it in the pan.

The vegetables also do best when quickly browned in the lamb fat before stewing.

While the browning is done on the stove, most of the cooking is done in the oven, which allows for a slower cooking over about 11/2 hours, leaving the meat “virtually falling off the bone,” Allen said.

The seasonings

Tradition calls for simplicity; generous amounts of salt, freshly ground black pepper and thyme are standard.

And the defatting step is key. Using lamb fat for browning the ingredients not only adds flavor, it also adds a tremendous amount of fat. Remove excess fat at the end of cooking for the best flavor and mouth feel.

The potatoes

Potatoes are the backbone of the stew, contributing not just flavor, texture and bulk, but also the starch that helps thicken it.

“We like floury potatoes best, so they’ll break up a little bit but get fluffy around the edges,” Allen said.

The ideal variety in the United States is the widely available Yukon Gold, which has just the right floury consistency.

And freshness is key, said Michael Hennessy, a potato expert with the Irish Agriculture and Food Development Authority. A fresh potato should be very firm and the skin should be unblemished.

The potatoes are best peeled and halved, allowing them to break into large chunks as they cook, adding flavor and texture. They also are added to the pot halfway through cooking to prevent them from getting mushy.

Other vegetables

Carrots are a must — though some parts of Northern Ireland omit them — as are onions. Allen believes baby onions are the best fit for stew because they develop wonderful sweet tones during long simmering. But chunks of larger yellow onions are a fine substitute.

White turnip is another traditional ingredient, adding a pleasant sharp flavor. But Allen warns that a little goes a long way. Too much turnip will overpower the other ingredients.

Though most Irish chefs avoid cluttering the stew with any other vegetables, saying they would detract from the core flavors of the dish, others add parsnips, beans and celery, which Gleeson said adds depth.

“The recipe for Irish stew is not carved in stone,” Allen said, “but we tend to stick with the tradition.”

Irish stew

2 pints lamb stock (beef stock can be substituted)

1 tablespoon dried thyme

2-1/2 pounds lamb shoulder chops, cut into individual portions with the bone in

1-1/2 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

10 medium carrots (about 11/4 pounds), cut in large chunks

12 pearl onions (or 2 large yellow onions, quartered), peeled but left whole

1/4 cup diced white turnip

2 tablespoons pearl barley

10 medium Yukon Gold potatoes (about 33/4 pounds), peeled and halved

1 cup chopped celery

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large saucepan, combine the stock and thyme. Warm on low while preparing remaining ingredients.

Trim fat from the meat and place fat in a large skillet. Heat over medium-high until the fat melts.

About 1/2 pound at a time, add the lamb chops to the skillet and brown on all sides. When the lamb chops have browned, use tongs to transfer them to an oven-proof stockpot with a lid. Repeat with remaining chops.

Season with salt and pepper.

Return the skillet to the heat and add the carrots, onions and turnip. Saute until just lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Transfer the vegetables to the stockpot. Add the barley.

Pour the warmed stock over the meat and vegetables, then cover the stockpot and place in the oven. Cook for 45 minutes. Add the potatoes and celery, then cover and return to the oven for another 45 minutes.

Remove the stockpot from the oven. Use a slotted spoon to remove the meat and vegetables from the pot. Transfer the liquid to a fat separator, let stand 5 minutes, than pour the stock back into the stockpot, discarding any fat that accumulates on the top.

Alternatively, if you don’t have a fat separator, leave the liquid in the stockpot and let stand 5 minutes. Use a large spoon to skim away and discard as much fat as possible.

Return the meat and vegetables to the stockpot and, if needed, warm over medium heat. Stir in the parsley, adjust seasonings and serve.

Makes six servings.

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